There are few regional, university, or community theaters that have not produced the absurdist comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a casual encounter between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso sprung from the wild and irreverent imagination of Steve Martin. A cinematic version is even in the works, tentatively scheduled for a 2008 release. Now in its sixth season, the Astoria Performing Arts Center has brought Martin's play to Queens in a compelling and sharply rendered production. Since it opened its doors, the APAC has hopscotched around the neighborhood; currently, it has a temporary home in the Brocolli Theater at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens, and set designer Michael P. Kramer has convincingly transformed one corner of a bare gymnasium into a warm and well-worn Parisian cafe circa 1904.
In this fanciful and intriguing script, Einstein and Picasso meet and exchange ideas on the eve of major watershed moments in their careers—in 1905, Einstein would publish "The Special Theory of Relativity," while Picasso painted his famous "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon" in 1907.
It's a testament to both Martin's brilliance and battiness that he would choose to juxtapose a scientist and a painter; ostensibly, head would meet heart, reason would meet spontaneity, and sparks would fly. Instead, these dualities are complicated as the men speak of celebrity, intellect, and cultural significance. And when a mysterious visitor, who looks an awful lot like Elvis Presley, appears late in the show, he further challenges established notions of perpetuity, fame, and fortune.
Rather than map out a simple two-sided argument, Martin has filled his supporting cast with a host of eccentric and incendiary characters. There's Freddy, the acerbic proprietor, and his sharp-tongued girlfriend, Germaine; Suzanne, a winsome young girl who arrives with a drawing that Picasso gave her after a romantic liaison; Sagot, an over-the-top art dealer in a sparkly cape; Schmendiman, a would-be genius in an oversized bowtie; and Gaston, a regular patron who makes intermittent comments about sex and other bodily functions. "Why do all the nuts show up in one evening?" he wonders as he lumbers toward the toilet.
Under Lawrence Lesher's efficient direction, this production pops with energetic verbal interchanges. The opening expository scenes could use a bit more snap, but when Sagot sashays in with a miniature Matisse in tow, the conversation immediately becomes more pointed.
Martin's writing is certainly sophisticated, but its humor is often elusive, as if written to please the author, not the audience. But if the proceedings are not always laugh-out-loud funny, Martin manages to pull off moments of exemplary wit. At the end of a particularly incomprehensible outburst, Schmendiman adds, "No pun intended." "No pun achieved," Freddy dryly corrects him.
Martin is also quick to question the limitations of the theatrical form. The play was written in 1993, before audiences became glutted with such devices, and these self-aware asides and winks at the audience ("Yes, dear audience, we the actors know that we are doing a play") were certainly more novel then than they are now. And yet, even as Martin challenges the form, he also manages to endorse it.
As Sagot shows off his tiny Matisse, he points to the frame as its most important feature: "Otherwise, anything goes. You want to see a soccer game where the players can run up into the stands with the ball and order a beer? No. They’ve got to stay within the boundaries to make it interesting. In the right hands, this little space is as fertile as Eden." The boundaries of a stage, then, can also be liberating.
In the excellent cast, Jimmy T. Owens is particularly splendid as the melodramatic Sagot, while Alex Pappas and Meryl Bezrutczyk imbue Freddy and Germaine with the perfect amount of tart domesticity. Timothy J. Cox gives an inspired and explosive comic performance as the loony Schmendiman. Lean and lank with a shock of dark hair and a bushy, stand-alone moustache, Jordan Kaplan makes an amiable and slightly unhinged Einstein.
Only Rafi Silver struggles a bit in his rendering of Picasso. True, it's not the best-written role—at times, Picasso comes off as little more than a marauding womanizer—but Silver doesn't reveal much depth behind his passionate gaze.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile would seem to be an ideal opener for the APAC. Although it is often produced, the play is perpetually alluring for communities of artists. And as Astoria becomes a home for more and more creative types, they will eventually surface to debate issues of art and culture. One cafe, the Waltz-Astoria, has already opened its doors to area artists, sponsoring live musical performances and poetry readings in the hopes of creating a vibrant community. At this moment, a future Picasso or Einstein might be sipping a glass of Greek wine.